News & Opinion

Pro tours hang up on armchair rules callers

Remote-control devices across America got a workout on Sunday afternoon.

At one point, the two midday NFL games airing in the Orlando market showed video rule reviews transpiring simultaneously, leading to frustrating delays in the action for viewers. Yet without question, replay reviews have made the final outcome fairer, with less fury.

Compared with golf, football is easy. The field is 120 yards in length, and there’s only one ball. A golf course is more than 7,000 yards in length, and there are 70-odd balls in flight on any given Sunday.

That said, the pressure on golf’s rules officials was ratcheted up another notch Monday when the R&A and U.S. Golf Association announced a breakthrough agreement with the major pro tours. Beginning Jan. 1, the PGA Tour, European Tour, LPGA, Ladies European Tour, PGA of America and the governing bodies agreed to monitor broadcasts on live television with a designated review official. The move is intended to flag rules violations as they occur, in real time. 

In the announcement, golf’s leaders also eliminated the two-shot penalty when a player unwittingly signs for a lower score.

For years, critics agitated in favor of such a prudent, comparatively inexpensive addition to the rules staff. Yet as part of the new agreement, electronic messages, images and phone calls from spectators or viewers no longer will be fielded by rules officials, much less reviewed, to determine whether potential game-changing breaches occurred.

Talk about a major disconnect. Armchair amateur hour, which busted more than a few prominent players over the years, has ended, a development that was widely hailed by players, fans and many media outlets. 

Here’s hoping the engraver knows how to carve an asterisk in the winner’s trophy, however, because at some point, the hot-seat TV sheriff is bound to whiff on a crucial ruling. Surely, the addition of a permanent replay official was years overdue, but why ignore a million more eyeballs watching at home, especially in an era when live streaming and multiple viewing options are becoming more prevalent?

At the 2017 majors, those watching online or via DirecTV at times had as many as four video feeds from which to choose, including feature groups of marquee players, or action streamed from certain holes. Sports viewership on many platforms is climbing, and with cellphone use rising, that genie is not going back into the bottle.

Nobody will argue that in golf, a game in which integrity supposedly is valued above all else, handing the trophy to the rightful champ is paramount. So why dismiss the observations of fans? 

Getting it right should trump all, so why the mixed message?

Thomas Pagel, the chief of the USGA rules committee, told GolfWorld.com: “There may be things that the committee, after the scorecard is returned, will come back and say, ‘You know what? We missed that. We didn’t catch that as it happened. We’re human.’ The committee will accept that responsibility.”

Imagine the howling among fans at home. What if Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson or Tiger Woods were awarded a title that should have gone to another player because a rule violation had been missed, if not ignored? Now imagine the public blowback if Woods were deprived of a victory that instead went elsewhere. The Internet would melt.

Pagel said that fielding phone tips often posed a distraction for rules officials who were asked to vet the veracity of the perceived violations. With the changes, a rules expert will sift through any rule question “as it happens, in real time,” he said.

As for the rat squad at home, get a life.

“I’ll be pretty simple here: It means be a fan; enjoy the game,” Pagel said. “Just also know and have confidence in the committees running the competitions, that they are monitoring that coverage. What you’ve seen at home, they’ve seen it, also.”

Hopefully. But where’s the harm in considering the input of others? Worse, the USGA and R&A also said images from smart phones on the tournament grounds will not be used as evidence of a violation, either.

Using a call-blocking mode on fans removes another level of security with regard to protecting the field, especially if the video-review official is on a potty break. Things can happen in the blink of an eye.

LPGA star Lexi Thompson, who was caught in a brutal rules crossfire at the first women’s major of 2017, quickly applauded the move. Unforgettably, she was assessed four penalty strokes for improperly remarking her ball and then playing from the wrong position. The violation was noticed by a viewer and assessed a day later, when Thompson was leading the ANA Inspiration with six holes to play (“4-stroke penalty stuns Thompson at ANA,” April 3, http://bit.ly/2nxsvFa). Plenty of expert eyes onsite, in the broadcast towers and TV truck had missed the violation, which occurred in the third round. The viewer emailed a query to the LPGA.

Would a video-booth referee have noticed? That’s impossible to answer, but the inarguable facts are these: Thompson broke a rule and was rightly penalized, regardless of who instigated the penalty flag.

“I am thankful that nobody else will have to deal with an outcome such as mine in the future,” Thompson tweeted Monday morning when the rule was announced.

Well, they will if the video official is awake at the wheel.

Sure, critics of the phone-in whistleblowers long have complained that tournament leaders are scrutinized at a higher level during broadcasts than players well back in the field. Equitable or not, given the million-dollar paydays and multi-year exemptions on offer, the stakes demand it. Of course, that won’t change, because contenders still will face more scrutiny than their peers, because of the addition of a video-review official.

So, what was accomplished here, exactly? The tweaks raise the very real possibility that a victory someday will be tainted by a missed infraction, because compelling information had been ignored. 

In golf, nothing is more important than carving the right name into the championship chrome on Sunday night. I’ll take an inconvenient truth over an asterisk any day.

Steve Elling has covered golf for the Orlando Sentinel, CBSSports.com and numerous other global print and online outlets. Email: ellingink@gmail.com; Twitter: @EllingYelling